For reasons Iím not 100% clear of Iím standing by the side of an Andean lake at a, literally, breathtaking 4700 metres up in the air, about 900 metres above La Paz, Bolivia – which is pretty brisk in the height department itself – it's just after 8am and I'm preparing with a dozen other foolhardy souls to plummet headlong down the Yungas Road – until recently the only was to get from La Paz to Boliviaís jungle interior.
The Yungas Road is a startlingly sparse strip of dust and gravel hacked from the side of the mountains by Paraguayan prisoners taken in the Chaco War in the 1930s and used as a handy source of slave labour by the Bolivian government; with all the quality of workmanship that implies. Frankly the road is more than a little worrying to even look at, let alone to decide to travel up or down; knowing that until 2006 itís estimated that up to 300 people died falling of the edge every year, doesnít inspire much confidence in your ability to pull the correct lever of an unfamiliar bike fast enough, but not too fast, to prevent yourself throwing yourself bike- or head-first down a 600 metre cliff.
The first 8 kilometres of the ride – which totals anything from 63 to 72 kilometres depending on where you read it – is on a proper tarmac road though, so we get a few short runs to get the hang of the bikes. Itís not as easy as you might imagine. When youíre suddenly launched downhill with cold, freshly-serviced hydraulic brakes, you do find them snatching rather alarmingly until they warm up and until you get the right height for your saddle, you feel even more at the mercy of gravity than youíd like. But the tarmac stretches at least accustom you to dodging rapidly-approaching potholes, workmen, heavy lorries and sharp corners before the main event really gets going.
The first corners of the road proper arenít too scary; youíve paid your entrance fee and the guide has gone over some of the history and re-stated the dangers: a young French cyclist recently went over the edge, a small group lost two of their party not long before. Theyíd not been taking it seriously, one had been standing on his pedals, but not been as balanced on two wheels as heíd thought. "Know your limits" the guide repeats.
Of course the first corners almost catch me out. An apparently wide, flat and shallow right hander turns out to tighten far more than it looks and the gravel slips under my wheels as I try to slow to a sensible speed. Larger lumps of rock, "baby's heads" as they're known in the trade apparently, almost kick my front wheel out. I manage to keep upright by the skin of my teeth – although Iíd imagine the swearing helped – and reach the first checkpoint suitable chastened and not too damp of trouser.
As we descend it gets warmer and we lose some of our layers of clothing; itís pretty chilly at 4700 metres first things in the morning and we set off kitted out in protective gear that had more than a hint of Darth Vader. Maybe itís the warmth and the exercise, maybe itís the suddenly abundant oxygen – weíve been at over 3000 metres of altitude for two weeks or more – maybe itís the effects of over-reliance on codeine and Bolivian Xanax that Iíve been using to counter the altitude headaches, whatever it is, I start to really get into the ride. I build speed, I pass slower riders, I begin to take in the spectacular views across and down the valley. I begin to think that maybe mountain biking is a way I could spend my time.
As we stop for a breather and drink after a couple of hours, our guide tells us about 'collarbone corner', the bit of the road weíre heading onto; itís the section that heís seen most accidents on. Itís deceptively safe-looking and youíre getting into the ride now. "Take it easy", he says "we might be trained to rescue you from over the edge but we donít want to. It should be ok though, most accidents happen to experienced mountain bikers, large groups of guys trying to show off and people in happy pants – the ubiquitous stripy trousers that certain travellers insist on wearing – but you lot should be alright."
The longest leg of the ride takes us through this final leg to the official exit of the road; weíll have been riding for over three hours by the time we get to the gate where the lady checks weíve all survived and more importantly have all paid. You can really get some speed up when you get the hang of it, without a speedometer itís hard to tell, but weíve got to be well over 20 miles an hour for a long part of the ride. It feels a lot faster in places. Even the slower members of the group who have been right at the back are getting into it; thereís overtaking, a general speeding up and they seem to be having more fun: my wife, whoís been back there all day even reports that the Australian couple who sheís been struggling along with are going a lot faster than they were to start with.
So we get to the final stop of the road proper; theyíve started building facilities for riders all down the road, this might take away from the experience for the purists, but itís nice to be able to have a ďcomfort breakĒ after four hours descending and being extreme.
After a while though it becomes apparent that weíve been waiting a long time for the last few to catch up. Longer than usual. It turns out that someone has come off; we donít know who. We donít know whatís happened. As the guide is on the radio with his partner who has been with the tail, we donít know whatís going on. Iím getting rather worried, my wife is back there. Iím starting to worry about explaining her untimely demise to the family back home.
Itís a long, worrying wait.
Then she appears round the final bend and fills us in with the details.
The young Australian girl who has been her companion for most of the day got carried away and lost control. And fell. Mercifully she was going round a left hander and her momentum carried her into the wall rather than off the edge. Sheís pretty battered and bruised though and is in the support bus looking pretty bad. Nothing apparently broken, but sheís dazed, bruised and short of breath so the guides take her to the nearest hospital to get her checked out. We carry on to the bottom of the road in a slightly more sombre mood.
Fortunately it later transpires that it's nothing more than heavy bruising and a few cuts. Nothing life-threatening. She's very lucky and her 36 hour flight back to Melbourne isn't going to be fun, but at least there isn't going to be another wooden cross added to the side of the road today. We finish off by heading to the Senda Verde animal sanctuary in the valley floor; making sure to remember that the deep puddle on the inside of the final left hand bend is mostly poo and other exciting human by-products.
If anything, the drive back up in the bus was more scary. After a few months of South America you'd have thought I'd have got used to the driving, but you never do. Even now the memories of the driver careering along, not really watching where he's going as our guide tells us of all the lives the road has claimed over the years, including a bus of 30 passengers that all went over, give me the willies...